The Inevitably-Named "Rape in RPGs"
It's funny. I'm always hearing horror stories about in-game rape, but no one ever seems to want to do anything about it – even write an article. In fact, it seems as though people are frequently surprised to hear that it's a common problem – and there are too many people who refuse to admit that it's a problem in the first place. This article is an attempt to address the problem, explaining what's acceptable, what's not, and what you should watch out for.
If you're like me, you may be wondering why I'm even bothering to write this article. "Of course no one is going to rape someone's character without being absolutely, positively sure it's okay with them," you may be thinking. "Right?" Wrong. Throughout my years of gaming experience I've heard continual stories of players' characters being raped when it really, really wasn't even remotely okay at all – I've even been there for a couple such incidents – and I think it's an important enough issue that it ought to be addressed in clear, certain terms. I also think there are a lot of peripheral issues that aren't immediately considered when we discuss rape in gaming, and I'm going to try to address all of them here. (Wish me luck!) For another related Gamegrene article, take a look at On Verant's Banning of Mystere, concerning fanfiction, child rape (and its female author) and EverQuest. --Morbus Iff
Why you shouldn't use rape – without permission
We, sweet and trusting players that we are, all put our characters in the hands of the GM, and we all (generally) expect a certain amount of trauma to result for the poor things. Their entire families may be killed; their lovers may be grabbed and held at gunpoint; they may even die. These are the kinds of risks we accept as normal when we decide to participate in a roleplaying game – we agree, essentially, that bad things can happen to our characters.
However, although you may disagree, there are a number of people who consider rape to go over the line, even when they're okay with the rest of the horrible events I've listed. Why? It's complicated. I don't think I'm going to be able to explain why some people consider rape to be the absolute worst possible thing that can be done to a human being if you don't already understand that viewpoint. But, believe me, there are an awful lot of people out there who think so.
one of the top three Cardinal Sins of GMing
I'm sure you've heard this a lot, but I'll repeat it again: it is the GM's job to keep the game comfortable for everyone. This involves a certain degree of sensitivity to the wishes of the players, and that means that even if you don't think rape is all that bad an experience, you have to be aware that there are lots of people who do. I can't emphasize this enough: if you decide to have one of the player characters raped in one of your games, and you don't get the player's explicit permission first, then you are doing an Extremely Bad Thing – in fact, I would call this one of the top three Cardinal Sins of GMing, if not the Cardinal Sin.
I don't want you to think I'm being overly dramatic here – but this is a dramatic issue. I know people (yes, more than one person) who have had characters raped, and later had nightmares about the experience – yes, actual real-life, wake-up-screaming nightmares! I know of gaming groups that fell apart because of one rape scene, and people who never spoke to each other again. I know of people who swore off gaming forever because they had a character raped and were so sickened that they couldn't stomach ever roleplaying again. I also know of people who were raped in real life, then had a character raped in a roleplaying game and had to deal with all of their horrible emotional baggage over again because of one GM's insensitivity. Stories like these are the reason you have to be careful and respectful – do you really want to be responsible for cruelly messing around with someone's psyche like that? (If your answer was 'yes', then please provide me with your name, address and least favourite way to die for ... uh ... no reason.)
Now, obviously, if you have a player's permission to have his or her character raped, then far be it from me to tell you not to. However, on the topic of asking permission, I do have a few pieces of advice. If you do get permission, I very much highly extremely recommend using the "fade to black" approach for the rape scene itself.
- If you feel at all uncomfortable asking a player for permission to have their character raped, then you should take that as a strong indicator that you shouldn't be considering having their character raped at all.
- Make sure that you explicitly ask for permission to have the player's character raped. Many players are just fine with playing in horrifying, disturbingly gritty games, but still draw the line at rape. Don't ask, "Is it okay with you if I run a gritty and traumatic game?" and then assume that because the player answers "Yes," they've given you permission to have their character raped. Ask, "Is it all right with you if I have your character coerced into sex acts against his / her will?" (Even asking the question, "Is it all right with you if I have your character raped?" is a little bit dicey, because in some circles the word "rape" is frequently used in its alternate meaning of "abusive or improper treatment", and it's possible that the player will mistake your meaning. I wouldn't say that this is likely, but hey, I figure we should cover all the bases here; besides, I want to see if I can make it to double the recommended word count and really piss Morbus off. /me grumbles. --Morbus Iff)
- Make sure the player knows it really is okay if he or she answers, "No." Players, especially new or inexperienced players, are frequently intimidated by established (or even just large) gaming groups – and particularly by the GM. A player will not want to be labelled a "bad player", "not a team player", "annoying", "histrionic" or what have you, and sometimes players will say that they're okay with things that they aren't okay with because they don't want to seem like a problem. Make it clear to the player that acceptance into the group and good opinion of other group members is not contingent on them saying "Yes" to character rape.
- You should make sure that everyone playing in the game is okay with you bringing rape into the game – not just the players whose characters are affected. Other players are going to be involved too, after all, and it's entirely possible that some of them don't want to deal with that kind of thing, even peripherally.
Why people sometimes don't speak up
gently but firmly say something!
Don't assume that just because someone has had characters raped before in your presence and didn't say anything, they were fine with it. A lot of the time, players simply don't want to make a fuss. I've seen this happen multiple times – a player has a character raped, and although she (or potentially he, but I've never seen this happen to a man) is very upset about it, she keeps quiet and tries to laugh it off because she doesn't want to make a scene or offend the group.
Naturally, if you're a player in such a situation, I advise you to gently but firmly say something! If a GM even starts to put your character into a rape situation (or, of course, any situation you aren't okay with) then say, "I'm not comfortable with this." If your GM continues despite this, or you catch flak from the GM or the group for saying it, then I will personally help you skin the offender(s) and dump their bodies in the river. (Okay, not really. Don't do this – it'll just result in more groups like BADD.)
For some reason, apparently, people who would never consider having a female player's character raped have been known to have male players' characters raped. I'm here to tell you that the assumption that a man is going to be okay with having his (female or otherwise) character raped just because he's male is an extremely flawed one. It is also an assumption that many people find offensive and disturbing – there are lots of people, including men, who are disgusted by the implication that men are "okay" with rape just because they're male. The idea that rape is solely a "women's problem" is not only statistically incorrect (more men, for example, are gang-raped in the United States than women); it also implies that men are unaffected when women are raped, and I'm sure any man whose wife or daughter has been raped can explain to you quite clearly why this is not the case. More to the point, men are just as capable as women of relating to and understanding the potential mind-numbing horror of the act, and therefore can be just as angry and hurt if it happens to their characters as any woman might be. In short, you should go through the same steps in confirming that potential in-game rape is all right with your male players as you would with a female player.
"Justifications" for in-game rape
I can think of no justification I would accept for having a character raped without the player's permission. I am going to present some situations that people have claimed (or potentially could claim) as acceptable reasons to have characters raped without permission, because rationalization is a powerful and pervasive thing, and I want to discourage it as much as possible (in this context, that is – I'm not about to tell you that you can't rationalize as much as you want about, say, buying that new $30 supplement).
- "But it's realistic!" I can't tell you how often I've heard this one. "Hey, your character is gorgeous, wearing a tight bodysuit, and alone in a horrible neighbourhood of a major modern city at night. Of course she's going to get raped!" "Hey, your character has been taken captive by a barbarian tribe. Of course she's going to get raped!" Now I tell you, and I tell you truly, that I am normally one of the biggest advocates for realism in gaming ever. Realism is very important to me – in my opinion, it makes a game infinitely better. Regardless, I still flat-out forbid my GMs from having my characters raped, and I consider my discomfort with the idea to be more than enough reason to keep rape out of the game. Realism should never be prioritized above basic sensitivity to a player's feelings – and even players who prefer realism to a seemingly-psychotic extent will often tell you that they're still not comfortable with character rape.
Realism should never be prioritized over player feelings
Furthermore, there are always other ways to address realism – I can think of no situation in which rape would be an inevitability, especially when you, as the GM, have infinite control of events and personalities. If you want to make a character's dangerous situation clear, there are other ways to do it. Is the character a frail, attractive woman alone at night? Have her mugged and stabbed. The character got taken captive by a barbarian tribe? Decide that the tribe has a taboo against sex with captives, but have the character beaten or forced to fight in mock-gladiatorial combat or something. Maybe that sadistic nemesis who has managed to take the character into captivity simply finds the character too personally annoying to rape – or maybe they're even impotent / frigid. A little creativity can make short work of "realistic necessity".
- The character is a courtesan, extremely promiscuous, or victim of a previous rape. The fact that a given character sells sex for money, or even just has lots of sex for no reason at all, does not mean that it is automatically okay to have them raped. You should still ask permission – you might be surprised at how some people who play courtesans, or whatever, feel about having their characters raped. It is also worth noting that some people make characters whose backstories state they've been raped before. Do not take this as a signal that you can have their character raped again with impunity – in fact, you should be ultra-sensitive even in terms of mere simple romance with such a character.
There are a number of situations that may arise, particularly in fantasy games, that don't necessarily appear to be rape per se. Let's briefly examine the definition of rape (that is, the definition that applies here – obviously, for the purposes of this article, I'm ignoring such definitions as "the refuse of grapes left after the extraction of the juice in winemaking"). (Bet you didn't know that one, did you?)
rape: (noun) unlawful sexual activity and usually sexual intercourse carried out forcibly or under threat of injury against the will usually of a female or with a person who is beneath a certain age or incapable of valid consent because of mental illness, mental deficiency, intoxication, unconsciousness, or deception.
Let's go on to specific situations:
- "But you had a choice!" The character is given a "choice" – for example, "Sleep with me or your lover dies!" This counts as rape. Even if the character could, hypothetically, get out of the situation by risking their life, or causing a war, or whatever, and chooses to have sex rather than initiate the catastrophic consequence, it's still rape. "Valid consent" means consent without duress, and thus, obviously, if the character is under duress, then he or she cannot give valid consent. Don't hide behind such excuses as, "But you could have fought an army single-handedly with nothing but a toothpick and conceivably survived to escape your rapist!" And don't force your players to have their characters make choices like that unless, as always, you have their explicit and prior consent.
- Deception can come in all sorts of forms, and roleplaying games tend to only increase the possibilities. My personal favourite example is the shapeshifter clause: a shapeshifter takes on the form of someone else, for example, a player character's lover, and "seduces" the player character. I've had GMs claim that this "didn't count" as rape for some reason – even in cases in which the "seduced" player character character would not have had consensual sex with the shapeshifter had they known the shapeshifter's true identity. Obviously, deception can come in more mundane forms as well, such as merely lying ("But of course I'm not your arch-nemesis, darling").
"of course I'm not your arch- nemesis, darling"
It's worth noting that having a player character tricked into having sex – particularly by smooth talkin' – is not necessarily as likely to cause the same kind of hurt feelings, anger and recriminations that can arise from having a player character forcibly raped against their immediate will; and there are many players who will be fine with having their characters tricked into sex who would be appalled by the idea of having their characters raped in a more physically coercive way. However – as always – I recommend that you inquire beforehand, because there's a fair number of people that are going to consider this kind of thing just as bad as any other form of rape.
- The "Charm Person" effect. A person who is magically enchanted into falling in love with someone and / or wanting to sleep with them, who then sleeps with them, has been raped. Period. And, because I have to say this so often that it becomes annoying, you should make sure to ask whether it's okay first.
- Threats. With some players, having a character threatened with rape will upset them almost as much as actually having the character raped. Even if you think that the threat of rape would be the best possible way to motivate your plot, and even if you are positive that the threat will never, ever escalate into in-game reality, you should employ the same sensitivity as you would with the "real thing".
Now I'm going to talk about a couple of issues that, while not rape, still ought to be mentioned in this article. These may not involve in-game rape, but for out-of-game reasons they're still unacceptable because they're forcing a player to play out sexual situations that he or she may not want to deal with. The character may not have been raped, and there is thus no reason for the character to exhibit long-term psychological rape trauma effects – but making the characters in your game do sexual things that the players don't want their characters doing is a kind of mental violation, and it is liable to lead to some of the same consequences that having a character raped might (for example, alienation and disgust with the game).
Forcing the characters to deal with the things I'm about to outline also takes a large part of the entertainment out of the game for many people because it turns things into GM decisions that should be player decisions. For example, wouldn't you be annoyed if a GM had a non-player character approach your character and suggest something to them, and then said, "Okay, because your character is tired and depressed and not very strong-willed, your character was just persuaded"? What's the point of playing the game if you, as a player, aren't going to have any real control over your character and their development? A character, and a gaming situation, is more than just a group of statistics and abstract descriptors, and some things should just be left up to the player – for flavour, if for no other reason. These are a couple of them.
- Die-roll seductions. I'm going to state for the record, before I discuss this, that it is my opinion that if someone gives someone else permission to have sex with them, then they cannot later say that they were raped (unless, of course, they were definitely not in their right mind, e.g. they had just drunk a liter of vodka). So don't start with me on that score. However, seduction in roleplaying games can be a little bit different because of the dice factor. In real life, someone can't walk up to you and say, "I just rolled a 20 on my Charisma check, so that means you have to sleep with me." Unfortunately, situations like this have been known to happen in roleplaying games. They shouldn't. Keep in mind that people put a lot of care and love into their characters and sex is an extremely personal thing – not just in real life, but also in character-building – and some people are going to be really upset if you inform them that they don't get to decide who their character voluntarily sleeps with. And, just as with the rape issue, it's a good idea to respect such opinions even if you don't agree with them; you're a lot less likely to offend people and lose players (and possibly friends) that way.
may be violating a very personal part of character- building
I do understand that some games actually implement statistics to try to measure characters' personalities, and that sometimes such statistics will purport to measure such variables as how seduceable a character is (for example, the "Temperance Virtue" in the White Wolf game Exalted). Therefore, when playing such a game, it may be tempting to force a player to make a roll based on one of those "personality statistics" in order to determine whether or not they are seduced by someone. Even if a player has given their character statistics that would seem to indicate that he or she is highly seduceable, I still think it's a bad idea to force a player to roll dice in order to see if their character is seduced. Maybe they did stat out a "seduceable" character, and maybe they should have expected to therefore be easily seduced, but the fact remains that forcing a player to have their character sleep with someone because of a dice roll may be violating a very personal part of their character-building effort. If you find you really can't expect the player to make the kind of decisions the character they have built would make based on the character's statistics, then I suggest you remind them their character's decisions aren't reflecting their statted-out "personality". If the problem persists, tell the player you're going to make them spend experience – or whatever – to change their "personality statistics" unless they begin to play their character in line with those statistics. But don't, repeat don't, make the decision of how the character acts sexually for the player, and don't have the dice do it either – unless, obviously, the player has told you explicitly that that is okay with them.
- Pregnancy. Don't get characters pregnant without the player's explicit and prior permission. It doesn't matter if they're being promiscuous and acting in such a way that they're extremely liable to get pregnant; don't do it. You also shouldn't sterilize a character without permission, or force a character who is pregnant to miscarry or get an abortion without permission. These may seem like minor or even amusing things, but they have the potential to really offend people – probably not as much as, say, having a character raped, but enough that you should avoid it unless you know it's fine. (I should say here that I've never seen a player whose character was male get offended by the GM's sudden introduction of a pregnancy or an unknown child by means of someone the character slept with; this is, apparently, a much less sensitive issue than messing around with a female character's pregnancy or nonpregnancy. Regardless... you know the drill.)
Player characters initiating rape
So, welcome to the end of this long-ass article. You'll note that I didn't address one thing: the possibility of the players having their characters rape others, whether the "others" be player characters or GM characters. I think that everything I've said here can be easily applied to players as well as GMs – although players don't have the same overarching responsibility as GMs, they still should employ some elementary sensitivity, and try to be nice to each other. I can definitely tell you that as a GM, if I had a player in one of my games say anything along the lines of "I rape so-and-so ..." I would stop right there and tell them to get the hell out of my game – I, for one, don't want to deal with the issue of rape in my games. That's just my opinion, of course – but it's shared by a lot of people. If you want to play a character who rapes people, I'm sure there are circles you can find in which it would be acceptable – but if you go assuming that it's acceptable everywhere, you're going to have to be prepared for some potentially nasty consequences.
One last note: I've actually heard of GMs coming under pressure from their players to include rape in games. Always remember that, as GM, you may be proverbially expected to "keep the game comfortable for everyone" – but that definitely includes yourself. If your players want you to put rape in your games and you're uncomfortable with it, then you are absolutely, positively not required to do it.
I'd be interested to know if there are any in-game rape situations that people think I failed to cover.
This is where I apologize if I sounded patronizing or if you think I was offensive. I think it's an important enough topic to be worth potentially offending some people. As for patronization – well, as noted, I've heard of all of the situations listed here happening at least once, and many have come up in my presence; I'm only addressing this stuff because I've realized some gamers honestly don't understand it, not because I want to talk down to you. If you think that any of this shouldn't need to be said, well, reality evidences otherwise – and I can only hope that this article goes a little ways towards changing that reality.
- A Rape In Cyberspace – Julian Dibbell's landmark article about a rape case in a MUD helps highlight the strong feelings people have about the matter of raped characters, as well as the self-consciousness and occasional difficulty people have coming to terms with those feelings. (Thanks for the link to Morbus Iff.)
- Pursuing the Libido's Dark Side – An article about the (currently in beta) MMORPG Sociolotron (which has implemented commands that allow characters to rape each other) that discusses how people react to that aspect of it and why people voluntarily participate.
- Rape in Role Playing Games – An archived thread from a discussion group for gamerchicks that, in an comparatively coherent and well-written way, discusses a lot of their specific experiences with the subject.
- I'd also like to note an article by a certain A. Whetton (titled, shockingly enough, "Rape in RPGs") that has been constantly recommended to me. I can't find it, but it's supposed to be a must-read. It's been published separately, but was apparently first published as a chapter in the game Principia Malefex.
Lydia Laurenson, a.k.a. Shataina, is a freelance writer who's primarily done work on White Wolf's "Exalted".
You can contact her at shataina(at)gmail.com.